Her new world was tiny and white, the porcelain toilet the only chair and the tub the only place long enough for her to lay down. She huddled at one end of the tub, feeling as if she'd taken a shitload of drugs. She couldn't focus on anything farther away than her hand, and looking at her hand made her cry.
She was covered in blood. Her blood. Every hour, he came back and bit her, hurt her. She traced the channel of a newly healed scar along the inside of her forearm, where he'd split her arm almost in two in a fit of rage after she kicked him in the crotch.
She hadn't fought him since. While she could heal, she still felt pain. That level of agony was something she never wanted to go through again. What she couldn't heal was the exhaustion that came with each bout of healing. She was hungry and fatigued but too scared to sleep.
Light glowed through the hazy window overhead. It was her second morning in the tub. She wondered how many more there would be and doubted she'd last more than another day or two if he kept draining her blood.
Her head sagged against the shower wall, and she wished she could order her body not to heal her, to let her bleed out and die so she didn't suffer anymore.
The door opened, and she braced herself.
Talon entered, followed by another man. He hauled her to her feet, holding her up by one arm when she wobbled. He took her other in rough hands and nodded in approval at the healed scars.
"Impressive," the man behind him said. "I didn't think you had an ounce of sense, Talon."
Talon responded by raising her arm to his mouth. He gave a cunning smile as she tensed. She whimpered at the sensation of knives going through her arm and almost fainted.
"Taste," Talon said, handing her arm to the silver-haired man beside him.
The blurry man lifted her other arm and bit into it. She sagged. Talon let her drop. Blood trickled down both arms before her wounds healed themselves.
"Very impressive," the stranger said, kneeling beside her to look at both of her arms. "You taste like honey, love."
She shivered, sensing something truly evil in his monotonous voice and cold hands. She didn't look at him, afraid of finding the devil himself in front of her.
"Your brother's …special as well," the man said. "He'll make a good warrior, one I can train to kill a couple pain in the asses I can't get rid of otherwise."
She looked up, fear and anger flashing through her. The man was in his prime with silver hair and dark eyes, a handsome face, and a body as muscular as Talon's.
"Stay away from my brother," she rasped.
"Ah, you do have spunk," he whispered, eyes glowing. "I'll stay away from him if you do what I say. Exactly what I say. You understand me?"
Her eyes watered, and she ducked her head. His tone made her want to crawl back into the tub and remain Talon's slave forever. There were worse fates than being dinner for a sadistic bastard like Talon, and she'd just met the man who was willing to show her what they were.
"Take her to the stash house on Broad," he said, rising. "I have a meeting out of town. I'll come get her when I'm back."
"Yes, master," Talon said with a smooth bow. "Pop, you promised - "
"Don't call me that, shithead! And yes, I'll make you a demi-god, not because you deserve it, but because you did something useful for the first time in your life!"
The devil left, and an angry Talon hauled her up, sinking his teeth into her arm again. He drained her life until she was near blackness before he flung his head back with a contented sigh. He jerked her forward. She careened into the door frame, a flash of pain going through her head.
He dragged her into another room. Someone else grabbed her and flung her over his shoulder. She hung, helpless and exhausted, stuck in the in-between place until the pain of her head hitting something hard jarred her into consciousness.
She was in a car with one of Talon's men, her crumpled body at an awkward angle jammed in the small area between the backseat and the driver's seat. The floor smelled of mold. She tested her body, dismayed when her limbs felt too heavy to lift.
Her thoughts went to Jonny, and she closed her eyes as tears formed. She'd do anything for him, even if the devil took her soul! And yet, she couldn't forget what she'd seen him doing - drinking another woman's blood as Talon did hers! What happened to her brother? Was this part of some phase or were these … people … really vampires as Kyle believed?
The idea that he'd turn out to be like Talon made her chest clench. She'd never let her kid brother end up like that sadistic bastard.
More tears came as she realized she couldn't do anything for herself let alone Jonny if they kept her in such a state. She strained against her own body again, panic floating through her at her helplessness.
Before she could ponder too long on her weakness, Talon's lackey dragged her out of the car. The thick Miami heat had never felt so good! The cool energy her body produced when she healed streamed through her, rousing her as it repaired the latest damage. By the time they entered the building, her arms and legs were responsive again.
The lackey tossed her onto a hard couch in the rear of the house opposite a closed patio door. The backyard was fenced. She pushed herself up when Talon snatched her.
"Keep her drained and weak," he ordered the lackey.
Pain shot through her as he bit into one arm. The lackey bit into her other arm, and she cried. Blackness crept into her vision. Talon shoved her back onto the couch.
"Put her in the garage," Talon said.
The lackey picked her up and carted her to the garage, which served as a makeshift barracks filled with cots and sleeping men. He flung her to the ground near the far wall. She landed on a topless bottle of oil and spit the fluid out as it sprayed across her face. She squeezed her eyes closed, unable to move once again.
She felt the poison in Talon's blood, but whatever poison ran in the devil's body was inseparable from him. She couldn't cure whatever it was, and she couldn't make sense of it. There wasn't something wrong with him; he was wrong!
Just like this place, filled with people who hurt her.
Just like being with Aaron.
The thought distracted her, and she both yearned to be with him and hated herself for not being able to shake the thought of him. Still, a life of betrayal with Aaron was nothing compared to a life as Talon's slave! He really wasn't so bad, when compared to here. Maybe, if she made it out of here, she'd go to lunch Sunday and do whatever felt right, like spend her life with him.
Or tell him to go to hell and never come back to Miami.
She groaned. Was he really worth her attention on what may be the last day of her life?!
The ground shook suddenly as an explosion burst in the backyard. Many of the men around her were roused by the sounds and the scent of burning flesh and wood. Gunfire pierced the garage door and slammed into men and house. More blood splattered her as someone dropped from the cot beside her to the floor.
She closed her eyes and held her breath against the smells of sulfur and blood. She couldn't run, couldn't move, and she tried hard to convince herself to pass out as the garage door was wrenched open.
More gunfire deafened her in the small confines of the garage, and men screamed and fell. Tears wetted her face as men in what looked like black tactical SWAT gear entered the garage.
More gunfire and another smaller explosion went off somewhere else in the house.
Two men in black darted through the bodies and into the house while two more hung back at the garage entrance. The sounds of violence stopped. The eerie quiet that followed amplified the ringing of her ears. She struggled to move again, to draw their attention so they'd help her.
She was silently thanking the heavens for rescuing her, until one of the men in black entered the garage and began shooting the downed men a second time around. Disbelief surged through her, and she clenched her eyes closed, praying they thought her dead enough not to shoot her as they did the others. She heard the gunshots getting closer, one body at a time.
There was a silence, and she waited. She peered through her eyelashes at two armed men stopped in front of her. The one who had been shooting the others was as large as Talon and plainly Hispanic.
As handsome as he was, her eyes were compelled to the man beside him. His features were chiseled from golden granite, his blue eyes clearer than the Miami shallows. He reminded her of an ancient Greek god, his cold, hard beauty magnified by his sun-kissed skin and dark blonde hair. The air around him hummed with energy and command. His hands were clasped behind his back, his muscular chest and flat abs drawing her gaze. He was dressed in black but not in SWAT gear, as if he knew nothing in this world could hurt him.
The Hispanic man left, and the Greek prince withdrew the gun at the small of his back, whipping it towards her. Her eyes snapped closed, her last vision that of the most striking man she'd ever seen.
She waited for the end of her life. It was the longest second of her life, until she realized he wasn't going to pull the trigger. Her eyes cracked open, and she was startled to see a petite blonde woman in dark jeans standing between them.
The Greek god was cold and intense, his gaze so piercing it made her shrink back even when he wasn't looking at her. His body was as poised as a Cobra about to strike, though he'd pulled the gun up to his shoulder. He towered over the woman and glared down at her.
"No," the petite woman ordered, her arms crossed.
They waged a silent battle, and Bianca opened her eyes, praying with everything she was worth that the small woman - whoever she was - would win. For a long moment, she thought the Greek god would kill the blonde first then finish her off. As if sensing the same, the blonde bowed her head in deferment without moving.
"I saw something, ikir," she said in a tone far softer and more respectful than her original.
The Greek god didn't so much as blink as he stared her down. Bianca's eyes watered again. He didn't have an ounce of mercy or humanity in him!
"If I didn't love you, you'd be dead, kiri," he spoke at long last, his low, even voice terrifying her.
"I know," the blonde replied.
He nodded his head towards the garage door. She obeyed the command. Bianca watched her, wanting to scream at her to stay. The blonde slid sunglasses in place and strode to the awaiting Yukon idling in the driveway with a glance over her shoulder. Her beauty was cool and classic, like that of the man before her.
"Take him, clean him up," the Greek god ordered one of the men at the front of the garage. He indicated her with the gun before turning away without another look.
Relief and fear unleashed within her, and she was hauled once again to her feet.
"Sofia," he said in a tone he knew conveyed his displeasure.
He slammed the Yukon's door closed as he slid into the back seat beside her and pinned her with a look she refused to meet.
"I know," she murmured.
"Pierre, if you let her do that again, you'll go straight to behavior modification."
"I swear I'll stop her even if it costs me my life," Pierre replied.
"Dammit, Pierre!" the woman snapped.
"Sorry, ma amour, but I fear him more."
Dusty looked at his adopted sister again. She was an ikira, the Guardians' queen, and a Seer, the mate of the White God, Damian. While the White God was off fighting the vamp infestation in Europe, he'd left his mate and brother in Dusty's protection. With their similar looks and cool reserve, he and Sofia were often mistaken for brother and sister by other Guardians, a convenient cover they exploited when she moved to Miami.
"You've done many foolish things, kiri, but stepping between me and a vamp is a first."
"I told you. I saw something," she insisted. "I am an oracle, Dusty."
"What did you see?"
"I can't tell you."
His gaze settled on her again.
"Don't look at me like that!" she growled. "I'm sorry, Dusty, but I had to do it and I can't tell you why. You'll understand someday! In fact, you'll thank me!"
He sensed she wasn't going to budge this time and relented. She'd been pissy for a couple of weeks, and he had an idea why.
"How far along is she, Pierre?" he asked.
"Dusty! Don't you dare, Pierre!"
The brooding blonde bodyguard-Guardian driving the Yukon looked at him in the rearview mirror, torn.
"You've got five seconds," Dusty said, unruffled. "Five - "
"Nine weeks," Pierre grated.
"You're so fired!" Sofia whispered with a sigh. "Dusty, you're not supposed to know. No one is yet."
"She's saving it for when she gets in trouble again with ikir," Pierre supplied. "Sort of like a get out of jail free card."
"I am not!"
Dusty chuckled, glad for the distraction from his dark thoughts.
Sofia pushed up her shades to display blue eyes rimmed with silver. His humor dissipated at the sight of the black circles under her two-toned eyes. Her mind was open to him, and he watched the thoughts passing through.
The visions in her head were dark and brutal, the memories of a man enslaved by the sadistic Black God for thousands of years. As the only oracle and soul reader in existence, she was the only one who could repair the mind of her mate's brother, the Grey God, who suffered a fate worse than death as a slave to the Black God.
While she never complained, it was clear she needed Damian to visit again soon and heal the damage his brother did to her on a daily basis.
"Sofi, you're not going to be able to handle helping Darian and being pregnant," he said.
"I don't have a choice," she replied. "Darian isn't stable. I'll be fine."
"I'll take care of it," he said.
"No, Dusty, Darian needs me."
He said nothing, his decision already made.
"Dealing with you is like beating my head against a brick wall!"
"Then stop beating your head," he advised. "I'm not Damian or Jule; you can't sweet talk me into anything. You're in my house. You live by my rules. You know I don't compromise."
She sighed and picked up his hand, placing it on her head. Dusty relaxed and smoothed her hair back like he might a child's.
"Boss, you can send her to behavior modification training," Pierre suggested.
He wasn't sure how Pierre ever made it through the Guardian basic training with his lip. While he made a good match for Sofia, Dusty had never quite met any Guardian with such a loose interpretation of discipline. For Sofia's sake, he refrained from saying what he'd like to say to the Guardian.
"Boy or girl?" he asked, genuinely happy about Damian and Sofia's first child.
"Boy," Pierre volunteered.
"The next White God," Dusty commented. "Sofi, that's awesome."
She smiled, meeting his gaze. The silver of her eyes flared and swirled as she gazed at him, an indication she was reading either his future or his mind.
"No, kiri," he chided. "None of that shit. You were late on purpose today so we'd happen to stop by the stash house."
"Don't even try to lie, kiri," he said with a chuckle. "I've almost killed you once today."
He'd served as Damian's executioner for thousands of years, a position he found fitting for his general dislike of the human capacity for evil. There was right and wrong, good and evil, and every human but the woman before him had fallen for some temptation of the dark side. After millennia dealing with the dark side of humanity, he didn't think there was anyone else pure left.
"I know you love me," she said. "And yes, maybe I did set today up."
"Congrats," he said. "I'll be an uncle."
They settled into comfortable silence, and he couldn't help feeling thrilled at the prospect of Damian's son. Damian himself would be overjoyed, and Jule - the third adopted brother in their threesome - ecstatic.
He pulled out his phone to text Damian.
Bro, come visit soon.
He hadn't heard from either Damian or Jule in two weeks. He suspected Damian sealed the European region to prevent magics moving in and out. Even so, he should've heard from one of them by now. In all their years together, they'd never been out of communication more than a few days.
He sensed something wrong but kept it from the petite woman beside him, who had enough of her own issues to deal with.
He dismissed the nagging sense of dread, concern for Sofi taking priority. He'd have to track down Darian soon, though what the unpredictable, volatile Grey God was doing was beyond his ability to guess. He'd activate the GPS later and hunt him down if he wasn't in the mansion that served as the Guardians' headquarters.
The drive home was quick as he dwelled on his thoughts. He escorted Sofi to her room, and was surprised to find the Grey God in his room. He knocked once before entering.
Darian lay on his back staring at the ceiling with brooding golden eyes, his horribly scarred body hidden from turtleneck to gloves to socks, even in the safety of his room. The only skin not covered was his face and part of his neck, both of which were as scarred as the rest of his body.
"Dusty, did you ever consider working for the Black God?"
"No," he said without hesitation, accustomed to Darian's odd questions.
The scarred man - who was older than everyone but Jule - was going through what Sofia called a teenager phase as he struggled to re-establish his identity after thousands of years as a brainwashed slave.
"You would have been good at it. He hates humans, too."
"I hate evil," Dusty replied.
"But hate is evil, isn't it?"
"I don't give a shit, Darian. I don't second guess what I do, who I am, or who I serve."
Darian rolled onto his side with a noisy sigh. Dusty couldn't help but wonder how he'd got stuck with a pregnant oracle and an equally moody teenager with god-like powers and no ability to control them. It definitely wasn't because he was the most patient of the three brothers.
"I want to go sail boating," Darian said.
"If you're headed towards the tropical storm in the Gulf, you can't take any human or Guardian with you," Dusty said, drawing a chair near the bed and seating himself in front of the Grey God.
"I don't know how to sail!" Darian replied in irritation. "Who cares if I kill a stupid human?"
"It's rule number one: protect humans at all cost. You know this. Rule number two applies to Guardians. I won't let you sacrifice any of my Guardians so you can jump into the middle of a hurricane."
"Fine," Darian bit off the word. "Why don't I have minions like the White and Black Gods? Damian gets Guardians, and Czerno gets vamps. It's not fair."
"I'm not Sofia. Don't bitch to me," Dusty said. "We need to talk about something."
"Gods, what now? More fucking rules?"
"I'd like to ask a favor of you."
Darian perked, his interest clear in his swirling gold eyes.
Darian sat up, joy crossing his ugly features. Dusty gazed at him, reminded of the man Darian used to be before he was destroyed by the Black God himself. He hoped one day Darian took his place beside the other gods.
Darian wrung his hands like an excited child at the news.
At the very least, he hoped Darian grew out of the fucking terrible twos.
"Boy or girl?"
"That's so awesome!"
"Yeah. Darian, but she can't help you and be pregnant."
Darian's gaze grew pensive.
"Dusty, I can't deal with this on my own," he said, gesturing to his head. "There are so many bad things in here …"
His face grew stormy, and anger colored his features.
"I'll figure it out on my own," he said resolutely. "If that means I go crazy and break the rules, you'll just have to kill me. It's ok, Dusty, I'll accept that fate. You're the only one allowed to kill Guardians. You can kill me."
"Darian," Dusty said with patience he didn't quite feel. "Sofia needs you right now. You can help her."
"Right now she could use some company," Dusty suggested. "She looks terrible."
Anger sparked again, and Darian stood.
"I would never hurt her, Dusty," he said. "I'll take care of her and the baby. I promise. I can deal with the mess in my head. I have to, because Damian's going to be gone for another week and a half, and then a lot of bad stuff is about to happen, but whatever. I have to help Sofi."
Dusty watched the change, irritated by the bizarre mood swings and cryptic ramblings that defined Darian's speech lately.
"You're a good man, Darian. Take care of Sofi," he ordered. "And follow the rules."
"I will. I'll make sure she rests and I'll go with her everywhere so nobody hurts her."
"Good man," he said again. "And if you need anything, come to me."
"I won't," Darian said. "I mean, I won't need anything, and if I do, I'll come to you. We don't have much time; we better go shopping for baby clothes."
He watched the confused Grey God leave, never imagining he'd deal daily with this type of drama in addition to managing the battles against the vamps in the western hemisphere. His second in command, Sasha, was in Europe, along with every body he'd been able to spare. It left him more hands-on with the western front than he'd been in hundreds of years.
Once Damian came back, he was going on his first vacation ever.
"Fuck me," he muttered and glanced at his watch.
He'd fucked Jenn only a few hours earlier and felt the need to unwind again already.
"Boss!" Toni's cheerful voice came from the foyer.
Dusty rose and trotted down the stairs.
"We interrogated the kid we found in the Camaro the other night. He's kind of a spaz. I think he's on drugs."
"Was he initiated yet?" he asked.
"No, not yet. You want us to keep him or cut him loose?"
"Cut him loose with a GPS tag. We'll see where he goes. He have any good info?" he asked.
"Good, no. Weird, yes. He seems to think Talon is the Black God."
"Apparently Talon's telling folks he's being crowned the next Black God," Toni said with a grin.
"Crowned? Don't think it's how it works. White Gods inherit their title, but Black Gods normally get hacked to pieces by their successors. I'm not old enough to know how," Dusty said, convinced Talon was psychotic in addition to sadistic.
"Me neither. Czerno will eat him alive."
They strode into the sticky heat towards the gym between the house and the garage.
"Boss, I was gonna ask if you needed an XO while Sasha is out," Toni ventured.
"You want the job?"
"It's yours. Move your shit here. I need an hour in the gym, then we'll go over the logistics issues you're inheriting."
Toni saluted him with a smile and jogged to his car. He shook his head, relieved to have someone to fill Sasha's spot. He'd gone a week with an hour of sleep. If Darian lost his focus and disappeared again, he suspected it'd be another week before he had a chance to sleep.
His phone rang as he entered the gym and peeled off his shirt.
"Sir, this is Speck in Ohio, Southeast Sector. We're seeing something strange out here. Not sure what to make of it. You got someone free to take a look?"
"I'll be right there," Dusty said, retrieving his shirt.
He hung it up only for it to ring again.
"Someone's going to ask you a question tomorrow morning. The answer is Mercy Hospital."
"Is that all you'll give me?" he asked.
"I'm headed to Ohio. I'll be back later."
"Dusty, you need to get some rest," she said, concern in her voice. "The world can wait for you to sleep for a few hours."
"Bad guys don't stop doing bad things just cuz I need a nap," he said. "I'm ok, Sofi, I promise."
"I worry about you."
"You're the only one."
"You'll have to get used to it pretty soon."
He paused at the cryptic words then cursed.
"Have a good trip."
"You'll get yours," he promised. "Any minute now Darian's going to beat down your door."
He hung up and tucked the phone away, amused. He closed his eyes and summoned his power to transport, one of the most useful gifts Damian' granted him. When he opened his eyes, he was in Speck's backyard. Speck was waiting for him, at his feet a creature Dusty couldn't identify. Grimly, he realized he wouldn't be catching a nap for some time.